The Europa League quarterfinals begin Thursday, with Arsenal home to Napoli in the most tantalizing of four solid match-ups.
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All of the first legs kick off at 3 p.m. ET
Arsenal v. Napoli
Alexandre Lacazette says the match-up with Serie A’s serial runners-up is a toss-up.
“Napoli has a big history like us. Now they are second in the table after Juventus and making a big difference with other important teams. They are playing very well. They have come from the Champions League but from a strong group with Liverpool. They were very competitive in this group. I know it’s going to be very difficult for us but we have confidence.”
Benfica v. Eintracht Frankfurt
If any of these match-ups are a true toss-up, it’s this one. And it comes right down to table standing, relative to league. Benfica is in a dogfight for first on the Portuguese table, while Eintracht Frankfurt is scrapping to stay in the Bundesliga’s Top Four.
Eintracht and Benfica both have brilliant attacks (and imagine if Benfica hadn’t loaned Raul Jimenez to Wolves). This one could be as good as it gets in the UEL.
Villarreal v. Valencia
Two sides who’ve met each other often and also both had success in Europe square off for a semifinal spot. Villarreal remains in a La Liga relegation place and this game comes three days before a six-pointer against Girona, while Valencia has a placement fight on its hands, too (albeit to re-qualify for the Europa League).
Slavia Prague v. Chelsea
Maurizio Sarri is not going to be sleeping on his Czech opponents, especially just three rounds from a Champions League place.
“They are very dangerous,” Sarri said. “They scored six goals in two matches against Sevilla. We need to be very compact and to defend very well. Especially on crosses they attack the box with five or six players, and they are dangerous on counter-attacks. It won’t be easy for us.”
The game of the season may have just taken place Tuesday in Spain.
Of course, Lionel Messi was at the center of it all, though that wasn’t the plan.
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Messi came off the bench and needed time to fix things given Barcelona allowed four unanswered goals to blow a two-goal lead at Villarreal. He helped drive his team back to a 4-4 draw which stopped Atletico Madrid from pulling to within seven points of first place in La Liga.
Barca is now unbeaten in 18 league matches since losing 4-3 to Real Betis on Nov. 11.
The final two goals were majestic.
Barcelona led 2-0 after 16 minutes through Philippe Coutinho and Malcom, but the hosts made it 2-1 in short order and scored twice in the first 17 minutes of the second half.
Messi came on for Coutinho just before Villarreal scored their third, then watched as Carlos Bacca cut through the Barca back line to make it 4-2 with 10 minutes to play.
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Alvaro Gonzalez gave Barca some hope with an 86th minute red card for a harsh challenge on Suarez.
Messi then scored a vicious, spinning, 89th minute free kick that — really, you have to see the angle from behind his attempt — whirled just past a defender and defied the flying Sergio Asenjo by smashing the post before zipping around the back of the goal.
But Barca still managed to make it look like it would not be able to pull off a miracle as Messi zipped a long range effort over the goal and then Asenjo made a terrific stop after Messi fed Jordi Alba onto the doorstep.
A lofted pass then led to a corner kick. Enter Suarez.
Who’s got the best route to Baku?
The Europa League draw was held in the shadows of the UEFA Champions League draw on Friday, and it’s certainly not Arsenal.
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The Gunners will have to get past Napoli, and vice versa, if they want a chance at upending Chelsea and winning an automatic berth in the Champions League group stage.
Chelsea will meet Slavia Prague, easily the best draw of the bunch.
It’s an all-La Liga tie when Valencia meets Villarreal, while Benfica and Eintracht Frankfurt have a huge chance to entertain.
Should Arsenal defeat Napoli, it would face the Valencia-Villarreal winner.
In some ways, this gives Maurizio Sarri‘s Chelsea the clearest route to Azerbaijan, though Eintracht Frankfurt can trouble any back line and Benfica has plenty of European experience.
Agree? Disagree? Comment below.
Steven Gerrard remains unbeaten as a manager in Europe after his toughest test yet.
The Rangers boss watched his team go down 1-0 to Villarreal after less than a minute of their Europa League group stage debut, but ended up collecting a pair of equalizers and an impressive 2-2 draw in Spain.
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“It’s a big result and that’s always the way, my experience in Europe, you have to come away and get something,” Gerrard said on BT Sport.
“Obviously we came here to try and win the game and we nearly did through Scott Arfield at the end. We nearly lost it as well. They pushed, which is understandable but it’s a big point for us. Now we’ve got a home game and if we can take maximum points it’s a terrific start to the group.”
Adversity was there for Rangers, from Carlos Bacca’s first minute marker to conceding a second goal two minutes after Scott Arfield made it 1-1. But the Glaswegian side answered the ball through Kyle Lafferty.
Playmaker Daniel Candeias has plenty of praise for Gerrard. From Rangers.co.uk:
“When we finished the first half, the gaffer said in the dressing room to believe in ourselves and get a great result,” Candeias said. “I know we didn’t win, but a draw is a good result for us.”
Rangers will host Rapid Vienna on Oct. 4 in their second Group G match. Rapid beat Spartak Moscow 2-0 on Thursday.
MADRID (AP) Villarreal’s struggles at the start of the Spanish league continued in a 1-0 home loss to Girona on Friday.
Cristhian Stuani scored shortly after halftime for the visitors, giving Villarreal its second loss in three matches.
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Coming off a fifth-place finish last season, Villarreal opened with a 2-1 home loss to Real Sociedad, then drew Sevilla 0-0 in the second round.
Villarreal had a first-half goal disallowed for offside courtesy of VAR, which is making its Spanish league debut this season.
Girona also hadn’t won yet, having drawn with promoted Valladolid 0-0 and losing to Real Madrid 4-1.
Also, Eibar halted its two-match losing streak with a 2-1 come-from-behind victory against Real Sociedad.
Substitute Charles scored the winner with a header in stoppage time.
Sociedad has yet to win in five matches at Eibar’s Ipurua Stadium.
Getafe and promoted Valladolid played to a scoreless draw in Getafe’s Alfonso Perez Coliseum.
Defending champion Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only teams to open with consecutive victories. Madrid hosts Leganes at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday, while Barcelona faces promoted Huesca at Camp Nou Stadium on Sunday.
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